Boomers and Olympics: Is Xavier Cooks worth taking a risk on?
Will Cooks be dressed in the green and gold, come Tokyo?
Credit: Russell Freeman Photography
It was late May, and the Sydney Kings were playing against Melbourne United. During that game, there was a certain play that definitely took centre stage that night.
In a burst of speed, Kings guard Casper Ware drove around his defender, diving into the paint and threw the ball up, a high arcing lob into the air. For a lot of players, finishing that play might have ended in a messy turnover, or an awkward, unfavourable catch in the post. But the target wasn’t just anyone - the pass was aimed at Xavier Cooks, their 6’8 star forward. It resulted in a confident catch and a devastating one-handed poster dunk, right on top of Mason Peatling.
Cooks finished with ten points, two assists and one rebound in that game, a gruelling double overtime match that saw a scrappy Kings team keep their finals hopes alive. But that performance meant more than a win for the 25 year old Cooks. In his sixth game of the season —and having only played 21 games in the NBL at that point— the athletic Cooks was clearly capable of jumping out of the arena, and landing on the social feeds of basketball fans around the nation. He looked ready, and the Australian Boomers should be taking note.
When the initial list for the Boomers’ Tokyo 2021 Olympics squad was announced in early February, Cooks was nestled in amongst 23 other hopefuls. At the time of the roster announcement, he had already suffered an ankle injury in a preseason game against the Illawarra Hawks, and was expected to miss considerable court time.
For Cooks, it must have felt like groundhog day. Following a strong showing in Europe for SIG Strasbourg in France, he was selected in the final 12 man squad for the 2019 World Cup in China. However, a knee injury suffered at the Boomers practice in August ruled him out of that team - he was replaced by South East Melbourne’s Mitch Creek instead. But that ankle —and knee— are looking good now. Cooks returned to NBL play in mid-May, and posted solid, consistent numbers for a Kings team that was desperately chasing the fourth seed, and a postseason spot. They clinched their final season game against the Brisbane Bullets with a 83-82 performance, with Cooks putting up another trademark do-it-all stat line: nine points, seven rebounds, five assists, two steals, and a block.
Xavier Cooks is your prototypical, multi-positional stretch big. He shoots the three with some consistency, and scores in and around the paint in various ways - driving, post play or finishing at the rim (refer earlier). Take his May 27th performance against the Perth Wildcats, which saw him deliver a broad, balanced stat line: 10 points on 55% shooting, with seven rebounds, three assists and three blocks.
His ability to act as a Swiss army knife however, is what really sets him apart. He’s a player who is willing and able to sacrifice for his team, so much so that he suggested to ex-Kings coach Will Weaver that he should come off the bench during their 2020 Grand Finals series against Perth, because he believed that it gave their team a better chance. “I just felt like it was better for the team,” Cooks shared back then. “I feel like I could bring energy off the bench, contribute off the bench. Just lineups that we play with, I feel like I could work better with different lineups.” Weaver eventually agreed with the suggestion, and the Kings won that Game 3, 89-87.
Cooks’ versatile production will be crucial to his selection as a Boomer. He played against Goorjian’s Hawks last Thursday, and finished that contest with his first double-double of the season: 19 points and 10 rebounds on 60% shooting, including three three-pointers and three assists. Speaking after the game, Cooks was cognisant of the fact that he was playing in front of the Australian team coach, but stayed focused.
“I was overdue for a good game, and having it in front of [Goorjian] definitely helps, but I’m focused on this season right now and trying to make the playoffs, and control what you can control, all that kind of stuff,” Cooks said.
The swingman was mindful that he might have made the wrong impression, thanks to an ill-timed celebration in-game. “I accidentally yelled out ‘BANG!’ and it was really close to his face, so I said sorry really awkwardly, just got heated up in the moment,” he admitted sheepishly.
Cooks has seasoned himself at the the pro level, having played four years at Winthrop University, before joining German team s.Oliver Würzburg, and played in the NBA’s Summer League with the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns across separate stints. As mentioned earlier, he also was a standout player for SIG Strasburg in France's LNB Pro A League, before opting to return home to the NBL.
Cooks will be competing against current and former NBA and EuroLeague players for front court positions, as well as a solid contingent from the NBL. This includes Deng Adel, Aaron Baynes, Jock Landale, Isaac Humphries, Nick Kay, Will Magnay, Thon Maker, Brock Motum and Duop Reath. Baynes and Landale are likely locks, having both been starters for the FIBA 2019 World Cup. Along with these two, the only possible returning players are Nick Kay, and Cooks given the retirement of Andrew Bogut.
Deng Adel is unlikely to be selected; the forward left the Goorjian-coached Illawarra Hawks mid-season to pursue other opportunities and remains without a team at the present time.
Humphries is currently battling a foot injury that has seen him sit the previous five games, and was ranked as one of the NBL’s top five buys in March (alongside Landale) by Ayush G.
Magnay is a definite chance, having returned to the champion contending Perth Wildcats after a brief stint in the NBA with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Motum is 30, and after completing his season with Galatasaray in Turkey, he is now starring with Nanterre in France, guiding them to 9 wins across their last eleven starts since joining the team. He was also part of the Boomers team that was a controversial whistle away from a bronze medal in Rio so boasts Olympic experience.
Thon Maker has bounced around a number of NBA teams, most recently being waived by Cleveland, but his NBA experience definitely gives him a solid chance of selection, although he has not played with a team in over 12 months.
Reath is another player who has been putting in solid work in Europe, for Serbia’s Crvena zvezda in the EuroLeague (breakdown via Daniel Lo Surdo). His team would go on to win the ABA Championship, albeit with Reath played a minor role in coming off the bench.
Lo Surdo also detailed in late February, how Motum, Kay and Reath could land on the Boomers’ final Olympic squad.
It must be noted however, that due to the likely inclusion of NBA-tier talent in Ben Simmons, Matisse Thybulle and Josh Green, roster spots could be facing harsher competition, in contrast to the 2019 campaign. Simmons, Thybulle and Green have all established themselves on defence. Should Goorjian’s roster decisions be based on versatility and defensive merit, Cooks’ ability to switch from one to four could put him in a better light, against other candidates who might be more limited positionally, especially on defence.
Concerns over Cooks’ injury history are very valid. There’s his recovery from the recent ankle issues, and his recent propensity to injury. In August 2019, Cooks suffered a torn left meniscus whilst participating in a Boomers training camp, which saw him miss significant time, coming back just in time for the NBL finals. He then sat out the majority of the 2021 season with an undisclosed right foot injury. Two significant, consecutive injuries —along with related downtime due to recovery and rehab— signals legitimate cause for concern. If he reinjures himself during the Olympics, they would be forced to soldier on with a significant piece down. Both Ben Mallis and ESPN’s Olgun Uluc have Cooks not making the squad, and cite injuries and resulting missed games as reasoning.
But winning is never a sure thing, and it involves taking calculated risks, when they make sense. For coach Goorjian and the Boomers, a gamble on Cooks could pay off. His unselfish, winning mentality, combined with his physical frame and versatile skillset, makes for a special basketball player - one right on the fringes of the NBA, and one who might be a catalyst for the 2021 Boomers’ medal hopes in the Tokyo Olympics.